As countries and industries race against time to find renewable alternatives to fossil fuels, hydrogen has emerged as one of the options that experts have high hopes for. While hydrogen isn’t new, why are more organizations looking favourably towards it as a feasible energy option? What are the challenges that lie ahead? And how does the future look?

Green hydrogen fuel_Istock
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As we get into the varying perspectives around the issue, there is no doubt that hydrogen is one of the key players in the global conversation on clean energy.

With the expanding scope of a clean hydrogen economy, IECEx certification, which has been ensuring safety for hydrogen systems since 2003, can help accelerate the transition by enabling the required robustness of the emerging energy infrastructure.

Is hydrogen a clean energy source?

Hydrogen can be called a clean fuel at the point of use, with only water vapour as a by-product upon combustion or reaction in a fuel cell, thus being a pollution-free energy source.

Having said that, the challenge lies in harnessing the potential of hydrogen cleanly and efficiently. Most of the hydrogen produced today is done through fossil fuels. Currently, a very small portion of hydrogen is produced cleanly from renewables. Numbers tallied in 2021 suggested that only about 1% of the global hydrogen output came from renewable energy. This “green” hydrogen is produced by electrolysis, where the electrical energy comes from renewable energy sources like the wind or the sun. The other potentially low-emissions way of generating hydrogen is “white” hydrogen which refers to naturally occurring reserves of underground hydrogen. Alternatively, the term “gold” is given specifically to hydrogen produced by microbial activities in depleted oil wells.

Hydrogen from these sources is being investigated for their potential, and research in this area is at its infancy.

Storage potential

Hydrogen can be compressed and liquefied for storage and transportation in fuel tanks. It can even be transported using the existing infrastructure of natural gas pipelines.

Its storage potential is one of the things that makes it so appealing as a feasible energy alternative.

Using reversible fuel cell technology, experts have found that devices can split water through electrolysis to produce hydrogen, as well as convert hydrogen back to electricity. IEC Technical Committee (TC) 105 prepares publications relating to fuel cell technology, and one of its standards, IEC 62282‑8‑201, deals with energy storage systems using fuel cell modules in reverse modes.

Since it can be stored, it is also a great option for off-grid power supply setups and enabling rural electrification.

Suitable for transport?

Hydrogen can be used in versatile applications such as power generation, transportation, heating or other industrial processes.

Another benefit with hydrogen is that it has a high energy density which makes it a potentially better energy carrier. Practically, this would mean that hydrogen-powered vehicles can travel longer distances.

IEC TC 9, which standardizes electrical equipment and systems for railways, is working on two standards (IEC 63341‑1 and IEC 63341‑2) to help the integration of fuel cells into railway systems for traction.

However, there are challenges for adapting hydrogen to smaller vehicles. While they offer quicker refuelling times, and can serve as great alternatives for bigger vehicles like trucks, the weight of storage can be a challenge for it to go fully mainstream for smaller vehicles. Automobile companies have been exploring options to overcome this barrier. While hydrogen fuel cell powered cars have been around for quite a while, fuel-cell cars are becoming more common in many places as a mainstream option. This in turn heralds a relevant robust infrastructure.

Challenges to overcome

One of the biggest challenges is the high production costs.

At the moment hydrogen production is expensive and will need substantial investments in terms of infrastructural support and safety. The International Energy Agency found that hydrogen production from low-carbon energy sources is currently very costly. But the report also suggests that declining costs of renewables and scaling up of hydrogen production will result in the lowering of the production costs by 30% by 2030.

There’s still a lot of work ahead in evaluating a proper framework. The road ahead will often have situations where the world at large would be with toeing the line between greenwashing and empirically justified optimism.

In times like these, standardization with international stakeholders and wide representation from industry, policy and governments is needed to bring various issues to light, so they may be tackled together. Standards for production via renewable resources, storage and safe usage can provide a starting checklist to ensure that we don’t stray far from our global objective of net-zero emissions.

The need for global cooperation

This is where the need for global cooperation comes in. There is an undeniable impetus towards hydrogen. Several countries and major industries see it as a key solution in the mix of energy alternatives to polluting fossil fuels. Research and innovation in developing low-emission hydrogen production are also progressing rapidly.

Despite its challenges, global stakeholders think hydrogen is one of the most feasible options that can be used to decarbonize industries that are challenging to electrify directly, such as steel, aluminium, concrete, chemical and other manufacturing processes.

International cooperation is essential in contributing to collaborative efforts among nations to establish safe international hydrogen markets and trade.

IECEx helping bring emerging technologies to market

IECEx helps in building quality infrastructure for hydrogen. IECEx oversees the compliance with international standards that address hydrogen safety, and its certification continues to be a valuable tool for facilitating hydrogen-related trade at national levels and across international markets.  

IECEx is already operating testing and certification in the green hydrogen space and has commenced issuing IECEx Certificates to hydrogen dispensing equipment and systems. The IECEx Certified Persons Scheme is also now being expanded to include additional units of competence dedicated to hydrogen safety.

With the increasing focus on hydrogen as a future energy source, IECEx has partnered with other international organizations, including ISO and in particular ISO TC 197/SC1, with whom IECEx has established a formal partnership relating to testing and certification in the area of hydrogen technologies. In an on-going close collaboration with IRENA, IECEx is contributing to develop a future roadmap for quality infrastructure for clean hydrogen production with current work focused on developing position papers which were considered during the recent COP 28 in Dubai. With the growing conversation delving into practical implementation and testing, IECEx and other global organizations will have an important role to play in carefully navigating the challenges of clean hydrogen production in the future. One thing is for sure though: it can only be achieved through global cooperation and investment towards decarbonization strategies.